The series we did on the “pink” issue of Dialogue made me think about why so few men have been involved in discussions of gender. I asked some of my male friends if they might be willing to comment. A few them bravely volunteered to post. This is the first of those posts. Dallin is a PhD student in the English department at Notre Dame. His research focuses on Modern British Literature.
“I study Joyce, twentieth-century British and American lit, and–of course–gender.” This is how one of my classmates finished their introduction in one of my English literature seminars. Need I say that she’s a woman? It is a fairly common assumption that gender studies is a default female topic, something nearly every woman scholar has her hands in. Yet this has led to the other assumption that it is only a female subject–that when we say “gender studies,” we really mean “women’s studies.” Thus few men ever wander to that side of the mess hall; while women voraciously discuss gender at their table about, men carry on at their seats with whatever else they were working on before, confident that “somebody else” is handling that subject.
Nevermind, of course, that gender is at least a two-sided subject–but what if one half of the conversation sits mutely?
Let me be open from the beginning: I am a man and I am not studying gender. I am not very familiar with feminist theory or studies of masculinity. I consider myself an interested observer, a neophyte in this area who has dipped his toe once or twice into the pool but has by no means jumped in. Simply, I want to give a personal perspective for why men, especially Mormon men, do not generally engage in gender studies. After some thought, I want to broach three possible reasons. They are–to group them roughly–cultural, political, and pragmatic.
First off, we tend not to see gender as such a pressing part of our identity. Despite all the progress feminism has made, some scholars, like Susan Pinder in her recent book The Second Sex, have pointed out that masculinity still tends to be the “vanilla flavor,” the default gender. Most of the progress made has been to make what has traditionally been male roles–working long hours outside the home, having a career, etc.–more accessible to women with not as much critique of the worthiness or virtue of that type of lifestyle. Thus, while more women enter the workplace, males still don’t feel that threatened because we don’t change our lifestyles much to accommodate them (even if both parents work, women still do most of the housework). Will our gender roles become more pressing in the future? Most likely, especially if current trends of greater female enrollment in universities and the humanities still hold. If men start to become the minority in these professions (though we’re still a ways away from even equality at all levels of professorship), I could see this sparking a greater interest in what it means to be male in current society, history, or literature.
Another issue is the political barriers in gender studies. By this I mean that there are a number of men (including myself) who wonder if their male voice would be taken seriously in a field dominated by women. Not that women will be overtly sexist, but will we have to face uphill battles to legitimate our perspective? Could we say anything critical about the current state of feminism, for example, or would be secluded to male-only issues? I might be completely wrong on this–I’d rather hope that I am–but there are enough horror stories stories out there of academics struggling to be taken seriously outside of their “personal” identity–white academics in African-American studies, for instance. Of course, a lot of these anxieties are misled (there are countless white Americans writing on race or post-colonial issues) but the fear of illegitimacy still lingers. This point, especially looking forward, will continue to deter more LDS men from the field. More and more, gender studies and women studies has aligned itself with queer theory and LGBT studies. Being not only a male but a male from a notoriously conservative religion would inevitably lead to a fear of being “outed” as a member of the church that pushed for Prop. 8.
Which leads to the pragmatic reason: if you have to decide how you are going to define your career, especially in an academic job market that is cut-throat enough, there is little incentive for men and Mormon men to make things harder for themselves than they already are by pursuing a field perceived as more difficult to enter. We like to assume that our academic subjects are reflections of our deepest interests, but everyone is aware that in the age of specialization, there is a lot of calculated maneuvering if you want to put yourself in the best position to find a job. When you combine the fear of not being taken seriously with a topic that feels less “present,” men tend maneuver elsewhere. And from an LDS perspective, when you combine these issues with the problems of men discussing gender in Mormon culture (how would it go over if a priesthood holder started critiquing patriarchy?), its one more minefield that does not seem worth the traverse.
Again, this is not an apologetic, but my gut instinct for this situation. I’m interested in other people’s perspective on this or critiques of the reasons I’ve laid out.